Lemmings are small rodents that live in the Arctic. Sadly, we have given them a bad, inaccurate rap. We assume they breed to outrageously large numbers and then they stampede to a cliff edge and throw themselves off to their deaths. This misconception haunts them to this day. But, it’s also a great analogy. That is, people who rely upon the guidance of others may rush madly forward, maybe toward the proverbial cliff.

Consider today’s life goals advertised as being consumerism and wealth generation. If these are our sole life goals, then we could readily relate our actions to those of the misconceived lemmings. And it seems for many, this is true. We’ve seen an expanding population bent on consumerism that has fuelled GDP growth for millennia. There’s little expectation in the growth stopping as we expect a continual rise in global population and energy consumption for many decades. There are indicators of abatement. But, how do we encourage a life that is more than satisfying these economic metrics?

Last year (2021), humans consumed 696 exajoules of primary energy. The greatest annual amount ever. It’s safe to say that our species’ consumption of energy has increased monotonically every year over the last 10,000. Initially, we consumed biofuels, e.g. wood and charcoal. Now we utilise non-renewable fossil fuels; oil, natural gas and coal. These amount to over 70% of all primary energy sources. Eventually, we will consume all remaining sources. And then what? Is our consumerism heading us for a cliff?

Gradually Abrupt

So we’re realizing that our species needs copious quantities of energy to sustain our technical wonders. How do we know? Well, even with all the recent research and reports on warming climate and species extinction, we’ve still increased our energy consumption by 50% since year 2000. Though renewable energy sources exist, their contributions remain trivial compared to the energy we extract from burning fossil fuels. If we maintain this trend then by year 2100, our consumption will increase by over 250%. Our consumption; mostly for our technology.

There is a desire, even an expectation, that energy reserves remain sufficient and that no actual harm will come to our ecosystem. This desire allows us to continue to burn oil, coal and biomass. If our expectation is met, then we are on a path of continual, immediate rewards. And we need care little about consequences.

Imagine if we are wrong. Let’s say that the energy reserves empty abruptly. And let’s say that the climate becomes unpredictable, and the weather varies enough to make living difficult. And let’s say that a homogeneous ecosystem covers the Earth’s surface, with the remaining species being overly susceptible to disease. Given these, will our species realize that our technical wonders do not provide the desired lifestyles?
Redwing Blackbird

Essential Services

Depending on where you live, you may be experiencing the end of a government mandated stay-at-home order due to the COVID-19 pandemic. This order has minimized commuting and constrained work activities to whatever can be accomplished in-residence. Only essential services continue. In consequence, there’s been a dramatic drop in our energy consumption.

Let’s look at this via oil. By the numbers, the world oil production has been hovering at just less than 100 million barrels per day. This value has been somewhat consistent for the past two years as demand and supply were well matched. Due to the order, the estimated consumption drop for the month of April 2020 is 29 mb/d. That is, we are using 1.77e17 Joules less energy from oil each day because of COVID-19 and the stay-at-home order.

This number is spectacular, especially from a conservationist point of view. Even more spectacular however is the amount of energy still being used. That is, even though the global economy is nearly shut-down we are still using 4.34e17 Joules of energy from oil. Each and every day! And this is solely for oil.

Oil supplies about 34% of the total primary energy consumption across our world. Assuming all primary energy consumption experiences the same drop means that humans need 12.77e17 Joules per day of energy (208 mb/d). This equates to about 700 dams the size of the Three Gorges Dam. This is just to sustain ourselves. One could say that this is the basal daily amount for our civilization.

Can we sustain this? Is it possible to create this amount of primary energy without affecting our planet? What will we do when the fossil fuels are no longer available?

Resource Extraction

Today we have a very clear view of our civilization’s dependence upon energy. Or, really, the effect when we break that dependence. The break is caused by COVID-19. The effect is the near total stoppage of the economy as governments have ordered stay-at-home isolation. Thus, with no one going to work, or working, or returning from work then we consume a lot less energy.

Oil remains the dominant source of our civilization’s energy. Not long ago a barrel of oil was trading for well above $100US per barrel. Today, in the futures market, the cost of a barrel of oil has gone negative! That’s right, effectively producers have to pay someone to take the oil of their hands.

What really happened? Simply put, the oil producers did not want to contract their operations even though COVID-19 reduced demand. Thus for weeks they have been pumping an excess of up to tens of million of barrels of oil each day. Obviously if it’s not being consumed then it must be stored. And storage costs money. And the available storage space shrank very fast. Thus the drop in price.

Which of course brings up a sticky point. As the producers stop producing they will stop their oil rigs. And walk away. For example, Canada last week provided $1.7B to clean up orphaned wells. Orphaned means that the producer has walked away and the government must clean up their mess. Their sticky mess.

Expect COVID-19 to be temporary and this situation to be temporary. But it does highlight our civilization’s approach to resource extraction. That is, we are keen on getting the value from the resource but less keen on spending money to clean up the mess. Is this a sustainable plan with which to go forward? Which dependencies should our civilization maintain?

Photo by Donald Giannatti on Unsplash